TURLOCK — When Dr. Alan Schaffert isn't treating stroke patients, he lets his mind run wild with creatures that scampered, swam or flew millions of years ago.
The Modesto neurologist is an accomplished, if amateur, fossil and dinosaur brainiac, runs an educational nonprofit organization and has a personal collection with items featured in state and national exhibits, including the Smithsonian Institution. But his favorite venue is just down the road.
"There is no reason to travel somewhere to have a smaller crowd and a lower-quality show. This clearly is the best," Schaffert said of the long-running Gem, Jewelry and Rock Show, held each year in Turlock by the Mother Lode Mineral Society.
The group's 47th annual show this weekend will feature 100 exhibits with 20 earth science demonstrations each day; 35 gem, jewelry, crystal, bead and fossil dealers; and a dazzling fluorescent tent. Sponsors expect up to 8,000 people, making it one of the most popular events of its kind on the West Coast.
"It's getting bigger and bigger," said coordinator Terry McMillin.
This year's show will lure South Dakota rock star Neal Larson, a world-
renowned expert in ammonites, an extinct relative of squid and octopuses except with a shell of perfect geometric spiral patterns. He's written three books about them.
That's also Schaffert's favorite field, although both have expertise in other ancient critters.
Larson, for instance, was among a team that in 1990 discovered the world's largest and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex, called Sue.
After 39 years in fossils, Larson recently formed his own business and is launching into trade shows. This is his second, after one in Arizona.
"He's an amazing man. We're really thrilled to have him," McMillin said.
Most ammonite shells range from an inch to a foot across, although some can go a yard or two. Some cultures believe them to ward off evil and increase fertility, "which probably worked because I have five children," Larson said in a telephone interview.
Schaffert will show an ammonite shell that was bitten by a mosasaur, which was like a giant marine monitor lizard some 85 million years ago. He'll also put out his ever-popular 5-foot shark jaws megalodon, to be accurate.
"We love jaws and claws," he said with a chuckle.
He and his wife, Cris, make it a point to chat up the crowd, answering questions about extinct turtles that once paddled around an ocean over what is now Kansas and Texas. Their nonprofit, the Tethys Ocean Project, is named for another that once covered much of Europe and the Mideast.
They don't belong to the local association, but he says its show is "by far the best" because of the extensive focus on interactivity, especially for children. You'll see them lined up outside the fluorescent tent, McMillin said, or to hear a T-Rex lecture by dinosaur expert Richard Wade, this year's keynote speaker.
"They do a fantastic job," Schaffert said.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.
AT A GLANCE
What: Gem, Jewelry and Rock Show
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Stanislaus County Fairground, 900 N. Broadway, Turlock
Cost: $6 general admission, free for children 12 and younger with a paid adult